Highway, schools closed amid search for escaped killers in New York

Posted at 11:09 AM, Jun 11, 2015

(CNN) — It’s a rural, rugged, idyllic swath of northeast New York, a place where people enjoy nature and get away from the crowds, crime and commotion connected to city life.

That was true until the area’s recent transformation to something closer to “a military state,” as one resident described it, because of the intense manhunt for convicted murderers-turned-prison escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat.

Six days ago, guards did a 5:30 a.m. bed check at Clinton Correctional Facility and found both men gone. Since then, hundreds of law enforcement have converged on the home of the maximum-security prison in Dannemora, neighboring towns and even adjoining Vermont.

“Life has been insane,” Steve Lashway, who runs a meat market and deli in Dannemora, told CNN on Thursday. “We have … officers on every corner with shotguns, and there are roadblocks up everywhere.”

Scores of leads have come in, with a promise of being a breakthrough or a bust.

One of the latest comes from about 3 miles from the prison, where dogs involved in the manhunt picked up a scent, according to a state official and another source briefed on the investigation. There is growing confidence this scent is from the two fugitives, the sources say.

Investigators have also found an imprint either from a shoe or boot, as well as a food wrapper in the area, one of the two sources said. They are trying to determine if this an area where the escapees bedded down and how long ago they were there.

It was not immediately clear if this relates to what’s happening on New York State Highway Route 374, parts of which authorities closed down Thursday “until further notice” because of a lead from the previous night, New York State Police spokesman William Duffy said. Checkpoints were set up along a stretch from Dannemora east to West Plattsburgh, while authorities inside that area looked for clues.

The heavy law enforcement presence and prospect of killers on the loose prompted the cancellation of classes Thursday in the Saranac Central School District, which includes Dannemora.

Still, this is hardly the only place law enforcement is looking. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said there’s been an indication that Matt and Sweat “had a canoe or something in mind they could paddle” — the idea being the two could quietly get across Lake Champlain, which presumably would be “cooler” without as much police around.

This possibility has prompted Vermont to join New York authorities in being on high alert, searching the lake as well as campsites. Shumlin, though, acknowledges “we really have no idea where they are.”

“This is a governor’s nightmare,” he added. “We’re trying to protect the public safety and take care of our folks (because) these guys are dangerous, they are desperate, and they would do anything to continue their freedom.”

‘It’s been crazy with all the rumors’

While the focus appears to be in Dannemora and nearby Cadyville, those aren’t the only places authorities are looking.

Hundreds of officers have scoured neighboring woods, looking “behind every tree, under every rock and inside every structure” for Matt, 48, and Sweat, 34, New York State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico said.

Earlier this week, they searched farms, fields and woods in Willsboro after a driver saw two “suspicious” men run off during a late-night driving rainstorm. Then there was a turn toward Vermont because of “information that would suggest (that state) was discussed as a possible location,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday. Vermont state police vessels and troopers looked for the fugitives on Lake Champlain, which straddles the two states, as well as in nearby campsites.

That said, authorities don’t have any hard information that Matt and Sweat have left New York. Nor can they discount the possibility they have left the area, perhaps heading to Canada — which is just 20 miles north of the prison — or most anywhere in the United States or beyond. To this point, 50 digital billboards with the fugitives’ photos have gone up in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

“(Authorities) are not just staying local,” Lenny DePaul, a former regional task force commander for the U.S. Marshals Service, told CNN on Thursday. “(People should) not think that they’re cornered somewhere in New York. So they have to keep their eyes open and be vigilant.”

Lashway, the Dannemora market owner, called the whole ordeal “a little scary (and) a lot frustrating” for people in his neck of the woods. The whiplash of all the reports and stories is part of the nightmare, like the Philadelphia taxi driver’s claim he spotted the fugitives — a claim two law law enforcement sources briefed on the investigation aren’t giving much credibility to.

“It’s been crazy with all the rumors,” Lashway said. “Just about every day, somebody comes into the shop and says, ‘They’ve got ’em. They’ve got ’em.’ But nope, they don’t.”

Remarkable escape, time on the lam

In many sinister ways, Matt and Sweat have already proved themselves remarkable.

First, there was what landed them in jail. Matt held a businessman hostage for 27 hours, and then tortured and killed him after he wouldn’t give him more money. Sweat was serving a life sentence without parole for fatally shooting and then running over Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Tarsia.

Then, there’s how they escaped — using power tools to get out of their cells and cut into a steam pipe, navigating a tunnel of pipes and finally surfacing out a manhole.

And lastly, there’s the matter of how they’ve remained on the loose for so long. Authorities have been looking them for six days now. To put that in perspective, state data indicates most escapees in New York are captured within 24 hours. Of 29 inmates who fled between 2002 and 2013, only one was free for more than two days.

How have they done it?

With help, many believe.

D’Amico said Joyce Mitchell, an industrial training supervisor the past seven years at the prison who worked with the convicts in a tailoring shop, had befriended the men and “may have had some sort of role in assisting them.”

The state police superintendent did not elaborate. But according to a source close to the investigation, authorities believe Mitchell planned to pick up the inmates after their escape but changed her mind at the last minute. Her cell phone was used to call several people connected to Matt, according to another source. It’s unclear who made the calls, when they were made or whether Mitchell knew about them.

Mitchell is cooperating with police and has not been arrested or charged, one of the sources said. And her family is standing behind her, with her daughter-in-law telling CNN that “95% of what is being said” is not true.

Paige Mitchell denied that her mother-in-law was to be the getaway driver and that she helped provide power tools used in the escape. She added that Matt may have persuaded her mother-in-law to contact people for him who knew about art, saying, “Her heart was in the right place.”

“They don’t have the facts to prove this,” she said of Joyce Mitchell’s alleged involvement. “This is just slander and rumor.”